Steering Holden’s future

These are challenging times for Holden – an increasing count of Australians no longer care about it. Can this trend be reversed?


HOLDEN’S marketing chief is a heavy-hitting high-achiever now facing what is shaping up to be the toughest assignment in the 20 years he’s been with General Motors -  restoring lustre to a tarnished brand.

Mark Harland, Canadian-born and born into a wheeler-dealer family – his grand dad, and dad ran a family GM yard in Montreal (whose portfolio included, somewhat unusually for North America, Britain’s Vauxhall), concedes he has assumed control of marketing for Australia at a heck of a time.

On October 20, Holden will finish up as an Australian car-maker. But there’s more; while most – if not all – of the Commodores still to roll out of the Adelaide plant have been spoken for, Holden is hardly on a high.

Far from it. From what Harland was communicating in a recent meeting with MotoringNetwork, his new charge is virtually in the toilet, desperately hoping no-one is going to hit the flush button.

The man who has previously worked for GM in the US, Europe, China and, most recently, Singapore, and has led the growth of Cadillac, Chevrolet and Opel suggests bluntly that Holden is a basket case for brand appeal across the dtich.

In fact, he says, this aspect is at an “all-time low”. Recent ad campaigns that focused on younger demographics also alienated the older traditional demographic that has, historically, been most loyal. Now they’re annoyed to the point of considering divorce.

Harland says Holden needs new customers, but not at the risk of losing its old friends. How to ensure that separation isn’t final? He has revealed that Holden has opted to change its marketing agency ahead of the closure of its local manufacturing operation.

It’s a major step, conducted with urgency – but for good reason, Harland says, because he believes most Australians – and perhaps many Kiwis, too – are now ambivalent to Holden.

That doesn’t mean it is stuffed. Reinforces Harland: “I took this job for a couple of reasons. One is that I know the product that is coming (to Holden), and I know the leadership commitment by GM. Also, this isn’t my first rodeo. And, also, I’ve worked with, and touched, just about every GM brand there is.

“When I was offered the job I felt the opportunity to take an iconic Australian and New Zealand brand and get it back to where it needs to be, to where it be deserves to be. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Can it really be that bad? Here’s our interview:

MotoringNetwork: From where we sit, Holden, by and large, seems to be still relatively well-regarded in New Zealand. But clearly things aren’t good over here in Australia – what’s the main problem?

Mark Harland: “The one number that I put to my team on a daily basis, and this is specific to Australia, is that 64 percent are indifferent to Holden right now. That’s the number that keeps me up at night, that’s the number that motivates me during the day.

“It doesn’t mean they love us, it doesn’t mean they hate us … they‘re just kinda not sure where Holden is going.

“Our loyalty (rate) at Holden is not nearly where we need it to be. We’re at an all-time low in terms of the brand.

“There have been years in a bygone era that people would just buy whatever Holden put their name on. We have world-class products, in the showroom and coming that are as good, if not better than any other competitor.

“But we have a brand that people are unsure of. People are wondering: ‘What is the Holden brand and where are we going in the future?’

“I can tell you this … we are in it to win it, the leadership is 100 percent behind this and my biggest challenge is turn this around from a brand point of view.

“My job is to get those conversations about Holden going again.”

MN: So is this simply due to the determination to shut down car making here?

MH: “If I look at my brand momentum, our brand reputation scores, about 52 per cent of the negative comments have to do with the closure.

“I have got to get them (buyers) to believe in where Holden is going in the future, above and beyond the great products. They won’t get into those great products … until they believe that Holden stands for something that is intrinsically and uniquely Australian going forward. And we’ve got to tell that story.”

MN: Surely, then, it’s a positive to be reaching out to younger, potentially new-to-Holden, car buyers … your customers of the future. Yet you say the ad campaigns pushing a youth message concern you. Can you explain why?

MH: “Holden’s not doing very well with younger demographics … but I would certainly say that we may have swung the pendulum too far (towards younger buyers) at times.

“We’re not doing very well with females – younger or older females for that matter. We need to build the brand with younger demographics, with females, at the same time as what I like to tell my team is we’re putting our arms around and embracing our owner base, the people that have been with us forever … we can’t completely walk away from the people that have been with us forever.”

MN: Still, getting a new advertising agency sounds rather radical, yes?

MH: “We decided that after closure would be a good time to launch the next iteration of what we want the Holden brand to look and feel like.

“We thought we would challenge some agencies and we’ve put that out there … so we put it out to bid, in New Zealand as well as Australia.

“We had 10 of the top global agencies, including our incumbent in New Zealand and in Australia, try to win our business. What we’re getting them to bid on is the next-gen Equinox (large SUV) coming later this year and, if they win that, they git to bid on the next-gen Commodore and some of the other brand work we are doing going forward.

“That started late in May, and we’re now just going still through round one and we’re getting that down to a shortlist. The final selection of that agency … will probably happen soon, mid-to-late July.”

MN: How engaged, ultimately, is GM with the Holden brand. Conceivably, in a cold-hearted real world, when Holden is not building cars any more, how much brand heritage will it retain. Won’t it just become a badge?

MH: “There isn’t an auto executive in the world who doesn’t know the Holden brand … most of them who are in the business also understand the challenge of the transition we are going through.

“Australia and NZ are places where we (GM) know we can win. Obviously, at the end of the day you have to return on invested capital. I think we do a good job of that. We have senior leadership – (GM president) Dan Ammann is a Kiwi – who know how important the Holden brand is, the place it has in Australia and New Zealand.”

MN: sure, but GM has had been happy to drop heritage brands before  - Pontiac is an example. That got dropped pretty quickly. So why not shelve Holden?

MH: “It’s apples and oranges to compare. Holden is unique in that we can pick and chose the vehicles we think will do best in Australia and New Zealand. We’re not competing with other GM brands … we have free, clear space. What we do is to make a business case to get the best, right-hand-drive cars, trucks and crossovers and make them a Holden. We’re very different to GM brands in Europe and North America.”

MN: Would you resist another GM brand coming into this region – it almost happened with Cadillac. Could it happen with, say, Chevrolet. Could you see Holden and Chevrolet sitting side by side?

MH: “Brands have to stand on their own, there would have to be a business case .. I don’t see it happening right now. But could you get a one-off sports car? Yeah.

“It’s all about return. If there was a place for a Chevrolet or a premium brand like Cadillac then that’s a decision we would make in the future. The job at hand is to make sure Holden profitable and successful … if we can grow Holden then we would consider other brands. But it’s premature to have that discussion.”

MN: Those two brands are interesting in that Chevrolet includes Camaro and Corvette and Cadillac is high-end luxury, above what Holden offers. We hear talk that Holden intends to offer a V8 sports model. It will have seen how well Ford has done with Mustang, but probably it’s too late to re-engineer current Camaro. But what about Corvette? Also, would either of those brands allow their product to be re-badged as Holdens?

MH: “I think the people that would buy those kind of vehicles would expect them to be under those (original) badges … I don’t think we’d be fooling anyone. Corvette and Camaro are uniquely Chevrolet products and just sticking s Holden badge on them wouldn’t make sense.

“I don’t think some of these sports cars and premium cars would make sense … there’s a certain look and feel to Holdens and you want to keep that.”

MN: But Holden is also a performance brand and, going forward, it has yet to identify any performance cars – so how is that gap filled; as the guy ‘selling the sizzle’ what cars would you like to see?

MH: “As the marketing guy, I’m as eager as you guys (media) to get a sports car here … we’ve seen Mustang have some success. But I think the task at hand is … take the cars that are coming at us, the Astra, the Trax, the next-gen Equinox and Commodore, the Arcadia … is to get the numbers with those vehicles and show we can be profitable. Then GM will be willing to invest in those other vehicles.

“I’m not in the discussions about what is five years out. Sure, I’d like to have a nice iconic sports car here, but the market is not as big for that as it used to be, but there is still some opportunity. Ford has shown that with Mustang. But the market here for that segment is not big enough (to convert a left-hand car) half way through its product life.”

MN: Technology is increasingly important to Holden; Astra and incoming Commodore are especially high-tech cars. Does that change the Holden ethos – from being a blue collar brand to a white collar brand?

MH: “No, I think what I want to do is have it a brand for everybody. It’s not going to be uniquely blue collar or uniquely white collar. It’s not going to be uniquely 25-year-old female or 55-year-old male. We’re going to have cars and trucks for everybody.

“I think the technology that we put into those vehicles is not overwhelming or intrusive … it has to seamlessly fit into your life. We want it to complement your life, not to be overwhelming. It’s not stuff that’s going to require hours going through a handbook. Being safe on the road is going to be important: That’s going to be part of the Holden DNA.”

(Since publication of this story Holden New Zealand spokesman Ed Finn has communicated that Holden's brand status in this country is healthier than in Australia. Data collated by a third party suggested Kiwi perception of Holden was "comnsiderably different." He also pointed out that New Zealand conducts its own advertising. Holden NZ head of marketing Marnie Samphier holds reponsibility for this country).